Nick Drake – Bryter Layter

I held off and held off on writing again about Nick Drake since the last time, when he was my 5th entry, because I wanted to kind of save his very few recordings for certain times of the year. The time for Bryter Layter is now!

It would be silly to blame poor album sales on a cover like thisAh, there he is, the man with the golden fingertips and a voice to match, who departed from us far too frustratingly soon.

The reason I chose this particular time of year to write about this album is because the album is a bit of an unpredictable thing, much like Spring weather. It’s got the smooth yet unusual picking style of the previous album, and indeed a large portion of the songs contain strings and even a full band at some points, but the actual songs are more or less all over the place, while still retaining that amazingly mellow and melancholy Nick Drake sound. This is also Nick at both his sunniest and fullest, for what it’s worth, with only a few patches of rain and cold weather spread throughout, but this is starting to sound like a weather station.

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy albums that have an introductory song, and I enjoy albums that have a proper ending, and I may have even mentioned that I’m a sucker for a good intermission song. Turns out this album has all three, which is pretty stylish, but kind of odd since there are only 10 tracks and the entire album is 39 minutes long. The first track is appropriately named “Introduction” and it does indeed introduce a new element of Drake’s music, there are strings, bass, a bit of drum, and the whole thing sounds lush and full in ways that Five Leaves Left kind of touched on in points but never fully realized. More than anything, the song introduces a sense of earnest effort, which is one of the most hidden talents of our hero.

The album then comes in with “Hazey Jane II”, which is the sequel to a song that comes later in the album (I don’t know why this is). This, I believe, is probably the last time you’re going to hear an electric guitar on a Nick Drake song, so you’d better enjoy it. It was played, like the previous electric guitar track on “Time Has Told Me”, by Richard Thompson, who is quite famous and accomplished, I assure you. The song’s lyrics are an exploration into a semi-absurd sort of stream of consciousness that Drake might have tapped into with the aid of “mind altering substances”:

What will happen in the morning when the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out the window in the morning?

And what will happen in the evening in the forest with the weasel with the teeth that bite so sharp when you’re not looking in the evening?

It seems pretty standard until Nick invites you to “Grow your brother’s hair”, which is really open to all kinds of interpretation. Either way, the presence of horns, electric guitar, and a wonderful feather-light drum beat make this song a very chipper one indeed, and the lyrics are somewhat optimistic for being weird. It’s been noted that Nick put a very subtle reference to his inner turmoil and outward withdrawn nature with the final line of this song:

If songs were lines
In a conversation
The situation would be fine

Indeed, Nick had no trouble putting his heart into his songs, but where it might have served better was in his conversations, of which he had very few, as it seems.

As the bright dawn of the introduction and the morning of the first two songs give a bit of a warm feeling, the weather suddenly turns a bit bleak and cold with my absolute favorite song from this album, “At The Chime Of A City Clock”, which sardonically pokes at superficial city folk while simultaneously challenging the way people handle their problems, whether all this is really poked at himself or not is left up to the listener. The words are very pretty and evocative of a darkened, chilly city lit only by the wonderful interplay between Robert Kirby’s string arrangement and the saxophone playing (one of the few instances I really, really like the saxophone) by Ray Warleigh. The chords to this song are an open tuning, but basically travel down an A minor mode that really gives the whole thing an introspective and “down” feeling, but the beat taps along with Nick’s amazing thumb and the whole thing is brought up again. The other musically clever thing about this song is that it switches to a major key for the chorus, where the message of optimism is most likely to arrive. A grand song, overall, and one that I can’t do without.

An equally good song and assuredly more infamous due to its inclusion in a few films and things, when Drake got famous about 30 years too late, is the song “One Of These Things First”. The picking pattern (which is really, really difficult to pull off just right) combined with the drums, is so effortless and light that it conveys a sense of motion as the chords, another down-tuned mode, this time in E, give a summery feeling, exactly the kind that makes an otherwise vapid and pointless movie seem like a work of art. The high-octave piano melody plays a vital role in putting this masterful melody together, and Nick’s vocals are the final ingredient in this hit song. The lyrics are, admittedly, kind of nonsense but still playful and fun to sing along to. One thing you may have noticed about both this song and the previous one is the inclusion of choruses, a blatant but responsible admission into achieving a more “pop”-oriented sound. Certainly though, this type of pop is something we really need more of.

We then move on to “Hazey Jane I”, which actually lyrically seems like more of a sequel than the proper sequel, so we’re all left scratching our heads at the naming strategy for these songs. This song is a little more reminiscent of the older stuff, with its focus on strings and really personifying the subject of the song rather than singing in generalizations. The song seems to focus on Jane (no longer the simple analogy for marijuana, unless you take that interpretation) as being a former lover, and who seems to have some problems. Again, this could be Nick talking to himself, the whole thing is left so open.

We then come, already, to the intermission song, which happens to be the title track of the album. It’s good, for sure, though I am still not a big fan of that flute. Flute is so appropriate to Drake’s sound, I don’t understand why it doesn’t sound good to me at all. Oh well, if you’re reading this, Lyn Dobson, I’m sorry I think your flute playing is mediocre on this recording!

Then we have “Fly”. This song presents a puzzle for me, as I am not particularly fond of it, mainly for the instrumentation and the experimental vocal delivery. Basically, the song includes harpsichord, which I suppose I should be thrilled about, especially since it’s played by the legendary John Cale, who aside from being one of the Velvet Underground, is the man who attached the legendary melody to Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” that made some people very famous. Still, I can’t get behind that harpsichord. I am also less than enthused about Nick singing almost higher than he can for the first part of the song, which might be an attempt to evoke a child-like plea whereas the verses where he sings lower are more “adult” and introspective, and all that’s well and good, but it doesn’t make very an extremely strong melody, I’m afraid to say. Still, I don’t skip this song, as it’s good enough to keep the album moving, and I have far too much respect for it to consider it a sub-par song. Really most people like it anyway, so I’ll just say that it’s a very important part of the album, as it represents a very “closing down” kind of feeling, what with its downward scales and such. This is the sunset of the album.

Now, with dusk upon us, and fair weather chilling slightly but not too much, we’re ready to hit the city streets again for “Poor Boy”. Sure, lyrically the theme is about a poor boy who never helps anyone and is never helped, and Nick may even be taunting or perhaps playfully teasing himself with the chorus “Oh poor boy, so sorry for himself”, sung by backup singers. Still, the song itself doesn’t convey poorness, it’s more a thing that puts Nick into the spotlight as a singer and entertainer singing about this poor boy as if he doesn’t know it’s actually him he’s singing about. The whole idea is interesting to me, and the “lounginess” of this song is defined not only by saxophone, but by a really well down and rapidly paced piano solo, played in apparently 1 take by Chris McGreggor.

Finally though, it’s time to rest, and a genuinely beautiful love song is just the lullaby we need to end the album proper. Indeed, “Northern Sky” should have been such a huge hit, but nobody really cared. The organ and piano are done, with much greater effect this time, by John Cale, and there’s also a celeste, which is basically the instrument that plays whenever you’re supposed to be thinking about a dream. The lyrics are poetic and pure, which is typical of Nick, but this is one of the few times it’s used in a song about love:

I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky

Amazing. Really, if this were the end of the album, and this album were the end of Nick’s recording career, as it almost was when it sold less than 3000 copies, it would have been a false end to the story, and the story might not have ever been told. The truth is all contained in the next recording, which is, whether intentionally or not, given quite the segue by the final song, “Sunday”, which is a tension-building instrumental that disrupts the peaceful night set up by “Northern Sky”. It’s like waking up, unable to go back to sleep, with an irritating sense of dread, not quite a nightmare, but still something that has to be overcome before the morning.

That’s where the final album in the Nick Drake trilogy comes in, and if this blog continues on, will probably be written about when the weather cools off again. Until then!

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